New York city guide on a budget: The best things to see and do in New York on the cheap

36 Hours in Central Park

With its endless trails, hidden nooks, museums and nearby night spots, Central Park is that rare tourist destination that is also a pleasure ground for locals. Video by the New York Times.

If you were lucky enough to be in New York in July 2011, you probably felt like a Russian oligarch. That was the month the Aussie dollar hit an all-time high of $1.10 against the US dollar and everything felt, well, cheap.

Since then it's meandered slowly downwards and has settled around the $0.72 mark at the time of writing. Which means that a $US5 cup of coffee has gone from costing $4.55 to $6.90, a $US90 theatre ticket from $82 to $125 and a $US200 hotel room from $182 to $278.

Does this mean you should abandon your plans to visit one of the world's most exciting metropolises? Absolutely not. New York has a wealth of free events and attractions and many of the city's most memorable experiences – strolling through Central Park, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring Grand Central Terminal – won't cost you a cent.

The city's tourism body, NYC & Company, has a series of guides to help travellers on a budget (nycgo.com/free) and initiatives such as the ever-expanding network of free Wi-Fi enabled LinkNYC kiosks have made the city even easier to navigate.

So throw away that exchange rate crystal ball and instead use these budget-saving tips to get the most bang for your buck.

CHEAP SLEEPS

Accommodation will probably be your biggest expense but the flip side is that it's also where you can make the greatest savings. Peak season in New York is during the US summer (July and August), so visiting in winter (particularly January and February) can save you a small fortune.

Hotel rates are generally cheapest on a Sunday and they also fall around major US public holidays such as Memorial Day (last Monday in May), Independence Day (July 4) and Labor Day (first Monday in September).

Your best chance to score a bargain is to stay in one of New York's "other" boroughs. Over the last few years many stylish and affordable properties have opened in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx which still offer convenient access to Manhattan.

Hop over the East River to Long Island City in Queens and you'll find the Z Hotel, a funky 100-room property with a swish rooftop and hypnotising views of the Manhattan skyline (rooms from $US125). In Brooklyn's up-and-coming Bushwick, check out BKLYN House Hotel, a cool, minimalist spot with free breakfast and murals by local artists (from $US125). Even New York's most maligned suburb, The Bronx, now has the Opera House Hotel, an upscale boutique property that's only a 25-minute subway ride from Times Square (from $US130). See zhotelny.com; bklynhousehotel.com; operahousehotel.com

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If you're determined to stay in Manhattan, several chains offer tiny rooms at tiny rates. Check out Pod's two properties on 39th Street and 51st Street (from $US95), CitizenM's stylish 230-room hotel near Times Square (from $US150), The Jane's sleeper carriage-inspired rooms in the Meatpacking District (from $US85) and Yotel's futuristic 669-room property on Tenth Avenue (from $US140). See thepodhotel.com; citizenm.com; thejanenyc.com; yotel.com

Thanks to a new law that has made it illegal to rent out New York apartments for less than 30 days, Airbnb options in the city have dwindled. Fortunately, there's a raft of hotels that offer apartment-like facilities so you can still save money by self-catering. Options include Aussie favourite Hotel Beacon on the Upper West Side (from $US165); Marriott's long-stay brand, Residence Inn (which has four Manhattan properties with rooms from $US145); Starwood's long-stay contender, Element (from $US150), and Hyatt's first extended stay property, the Hyatt House New York/Chelsea (due to open in January 2017). See beaconhotel.com; residenceinn.marriott.com; elementtimessquare.com; newyorkchelsea.house.hyatt.com

GETTING AROUND

If you can, walk (navigating the city's grid-like streets is a doddle). If you can't, use subways and buses. Either buy a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, where each one-way trip costs $US2.75, or get a 7-Day Unlimited Ride pass for $US31.

It's practically compulsory to take a trip on the free Staten Island Ferry, which offers dazzling views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as it shuttles between Battery Park and the city's fifth borough. Also worth checking out are the East River Ferry that hops between Manhattan and Brooklyn ($US4 on weekdays, $US6 on weekends) and the Ikea ferry that runs from Wall Street to the company's store in Red Hook, Brooklyn (free at weekends, $US5 on weekdays). See siferry.com; eastriverferry.com; nywatertaxi.com

Rather than catching a taxi to and from New York's three airports, consider taking the subway, a shuttle or a bus. For a good round-up of the options, see gonyc.about.com

AFFORDABLE ATTRACTIONS

Admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History is by "suggested donation", so you don't technically have to pay anything. Many other museums have free or discounted entry on certain days. For example, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is free after 5pm on Tuesdays, the Museum of Modern Art is free after 4pm on Fridays and the Frick Collection is "pay what you wish" on Sundays from 11am to 1pm. For a comprehensive list, see nycgo.com/free

If you're going to be hitting a lot of the big-ticket attractions, buy a pass. The most popular offerings are the New York CityPASS, the New York Explorer Pass and the New York Pass. Each offers different deals on different attractions so do your homework first. See citypass.com; smartdestinations.com; newyorkpass.com

For sheer architectural splendour, it's well worth visiting the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the world's largest gothic cathedral, which features a single stained-glass window with more than 10,000 pieces of glass. Equally inspiring is St Patrick's Cathedral, whose intricate marble facade conceals a Louis Tiffany-designed altar and a spectacular rose window. See stjohndivine.org; saintpatrickscathedral.org

In January the city is holding its first NYC Attractions Week, with two-for-one admission to more than 70 attractions, tours and shows across all five boroughs. Big name participants include the Brooklyn Museum, the Lincoln Centre and the One World Observatory. See nycgo.com/attractions-week

FREE TOURS

There are several free or tip-based tour options. One of the best is Big Apple Greeter, which matches visitors with a local volunteer based on their interests (just be sure to sign up four weeks before you arrive). See bigapplegreeter.org

Another good operator is Free Tours by Foot, which has a wide range of walking, biking and food tours where you pay what you feel is appropriate at the end. See freetoursbyfoot.com

While you can explore Grand Central Terminal on your own, why not take advantage of the free 90-minute tour led by an urban historian every Friday at 12:30pm? The same goes for Central Park and the High Line, which both have regular free tours by expert guides. See grandcentralpartnership.nyc; centralparknyc.org; thehighline.org

During the summer, you can learn more about Greenwich Village's bohemian past on a free walking tour by the Village Alliance. Self-guided tours are available on their website year-round. See villagealliance.org

After all that walking you'll be ready for a beer. Brooklyn Brewery and Chelsea Craft Brewing Company both offer free tours; the latter even includes a free sample. See brooklynbrewery.com; chelseacraftbrewing.com

SHOW TIME

Most visitors know you can buy discounted same-day theatre tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Square. What's less well-publicised is that there are quieter outlets in South Street Seaport and at the MetroTech Centre in Brooklyn. See tdf.org

To find out which shows are offering cheap "rush" or lottery tickets, check out broadwayforbrokepeople.com. And if you can time your trip to coincide with NYC Broadway Week or NYC Off-Broadway Week, you'll be able to buy two-for-one tickets for many top shows. Dates vary each year so check nycgo.com for the latest.

Another good source of free entertainment is to join the studio audience at a live taping of a TV show. While some shows offer same-day standby tickets, it's better to reserve them online in advance. Popular options include The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. See nycgo.com/free for a comprehensive list.

Comedy fans should check out Whiplash, the free weekly stand-up gig at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea, which often sees drop-ins by notable names including Chris Rock and Louis C.K. See ucbtheatre.com

Even though accommodation is more expensive in summer, the number of free festivals can still make it a tempting proposition. Highlights include SummerStage, which has more than 100 events across 16 city parks, Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn!, a nine-week series of free outdoor concerts in Prospect Park. See cityparksfoundation.org; publictheater.org; bricartsmedia.org

Summer is also when you can enjoy free outdoor movies at Bryant Park, Hudson River Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park. See bryantpark.org; hudsonriverpark.org; brooklynbridgepark.org

FAMILY FUN

New York is much more kid-friendly than most people give it credit for. Many of the city's museums and attractions cater for little ones and most provide free or discounted entry at specific times.

Kick off with the Brooklyn Children's Museum (free Thursdays from 2pm-6pm), the world's first museum specifically designed for kids, which has a collection of almost 30,000 objects plus a splash park, an art studio and a musical play area. See brooklynkids.org

Hop over to Queens and you'll find the New York Hall of Science (free Fridays from 2pm-5pm and Sundays from 10am-11am), a sprawling complex with a 3D movie theatre and an innovative hands-on design lab. See nysci.org

Older kids will appreciate the Museum of the Moving Image (free Fridays after 4pm), which offers an insight into the world of cinema through interactive displays, costumes and set models from Hollywood blockbusters. See movingimage.us

Even the Museum of Modern Art, surely one of New York's most grown-up institutions, has an extensive range of family activities. Sign up for a kids' talk, tour or workshop and admission for accompanying adults is free. See moma.org

If your little ones are animal lovers, you're spoilt for choice. Bronx Zoo is the largest in North America with more than 5000 animals and "pay what you wish" admission on Wednesdays. Staten Island Zoo is also free on Wednesdays (after 2pm) and is famous for its collection of rattlesnakes. See bronxzoo.com; statenislandzoo.org

Central Park is the obvious place to let kids run off steam, but there are many other options too. Prospect Park has a delightful 100-year-old wooden carousel and a storytelling-themed playground, Brooklyn Bridge Park is home to New York's largest sand pit and Governors Island is a car-free paradise with forts, hills and a manmade beach. If you prefer the real thing, Coney Island offers the full seaside experience with a wide stretch of sand, a traditional wooden boardwalk and an amusement park packed with rides from the tame to the terrifying. See prospectpark.org; brooklynbridgeparknyc.org; govisland.com, lunaparknyc.com

Finally, if the budget won't stretch to four tickets to The Lion King, check out the more affordable options at the New Victory Theatre, a non-profit that specialises in children's productions. See newvictory.org

SHOPPING SPREE

While the falling dollar means many items are now cheaper at home, it's still worth rummaging for bargains at discount store Century 21. Another good option is outlet mall Woodbury Common,  one hour upstate. See c21stores.com; premiumoutlets.com

In New York, sales tax applies to clothing and footwear over $US110 so your best bet for high-end fashion is to hop over the Hudson River to New Jersey where there's no sales tax on garments. Check out the malls at Jersey Gardens, Westfield Garden State Plaza and Newport Centre. See simon.com; westfield.com

And, of course, don't forget good 'ol Macy's, which still offers international travellers a 10 per cent discount (just show your passport at the information desk). See macys.com

FRUGAL FEASTS

If you're a foodie, it's well worth visiting during NYC Restaurant Week, a biannual dining program (normally in January/February and July/August) that offers discounted fixed price lunch and dinner at more than 350 restaurants. See nycgo.com/restaurant-week.

Many of the city's swankiest eateries offer good value fixed price lunch menus year round. Particularly tempting are the $US58 two-course lunch at Jean-Georges and the $US55 three-course City Harvest lunch at Le Bernardin ($US5 of which is donated to community food programs). Both establishments have three Michelin stars. See jean-georges.com; le-bernardin.com

For the ultimate cheap eats, hit the streets. The city has hundreds of street vendors who churn out fresh, tasty treats from every cuisine on the planet. Eschew Central Park's ubiquitous hot dog vendors and instead head to midtown or lower Manhattan and follow the office workers.

FITNESS FREEBIES

For such an urban destination, New York has a surprising number of cheap ways to keep fit. Throughout the summer, the city's outdoor public pools are all free – just bring swimmers, a towel, bag and padlock. You can also enjoy a free kayak session on the Hudson River at the Downtown Boathouse. See nycgovparks.org; downtownboathouse.org

Bryant Park is another great summer hangout as it has complimentary ping pong tables (complete with paddles and balls) plus free yoga classes every Tuesday and Thursday (complete with mats). See bryantpark.org

It's a little-known fact that there's a bike path that circles almost all of Manhattan. Rent a bike from Battery Park and head up the west side past a succession of marinas, playgrounds and parks or east and over the Brooklyn Bridge for panoramic views of Manhattan. See bikenewyorkcity.com

STAY CONNECTED

In the space of a couple of years, New York has gone from one of the most frustrating cities to find free Wi-Fi to one of the best. Much of this is down to LinkNYC, an ambitious scheme that is gradually replacing more than 7500 pay phones with new communication hubs called Links. Each one provides fast, free Wi-Fi (look for the LinkNYC network), free phone calls within the US and USB device charging. See link.nyc

Transit Wireless is also rolling out free Wi-Fi in all 279 Manhattan, Queens and Bronx underground stations (connect via TransitWirelessWiFi). Plus you'll find free Wi-Fi hotspots in many of the city's public parks, including Central Park, Prospect Park and Bryant Park. See transitwirelesswifi.com; nyc.gov/parks

Downtown dwellers are doubly blessed thanks to the 18 free Wi-Fi zones in Lower Manhattan provided by Downtown Alliance (connect to #DwtwnAllianceFreeWiFi). And, of course, if all else fails, you can always find free internet access at Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's. See downtownny.com

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE

Of course, many of the city's most quintessential experiences are free. Wandering through wild flowers on the delightful elevated High Line, revelling in the chandeliered opulence of the New York Public Library's main reading room and basking in the frenetic chaos that is Times Square won't cost you a bean.

Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Brand USA.

FIVE NYC EXPERIENCES WORTH SPLURGING ON

GET HIGH

For unforgettable views of the city and harbour, splash out on a sightseeing tour with Helicopter Flight Services. See heliny.com

CHEER SQUAD

Whether it's baseball, basketball, NFL or hockey, watching one of New York's beloved sports teams play at home is an exhilarating experience. See nycgo.com

DRINK IN THE VIEW

Celebrate the city's balmy summer evenings with a cocktail (or three) on a rooftop bar. Popular spots include the Empire Hotel, 230 Fifth and The Standard. See empirehotelnyc.com; 230-fifth.com; standardhotels.com

HARBOUR TIME

Enjoy a twilight sail on a hand-built 1929 Shearwater schooner and watch the sun set behind Lady Liberty. See manhattanbysail.com

CULTURE VULTURE

Get dressed up and treat yourself to a world-class ballet, opera or classical concert at the Lincoln Centre. See lincolncenter.org

FIVE GENERAL US MONEY-SAVING TIPS

Go local: Unless you want a nasty dose of roamer's remorse, turn off roaming on your mobile phone and buy a local SIM instead.

Go direct: Want to stay at a specific hotel? Ring them once you've found the best price online – often they'll better it.

Go fee free: Save on bank fees by loading cash onto a prepaid card such as Mastercard's Cash Passport or use a credit card with no currency conversion fees such as 28 Degrees. See cashpassport.com.au; 28degreescard.com.au

Take a chance: Book your first night's accommodation then wing it. Hotels will often discount rooms at the last minute or throw in extras such as breakfast or Wi-Fi.

BYO booze: Step away from the mini-bar. Stock up on duty free at the airport instead.

NYC TIPPING TIPS

You're not legally obliged to tip in New York but you'll have an unpleasant stay if you don't. Most service staff rely on tips to earn a living so make sure you factor it into your holiday budget. Restaurant bills can be settled by credit card but for everything else you'll need a handy stash of one-dollar bills. Here are some guidelines:

  • Hotel porter – $US1 per bag
  • Coat check at a museum/bar/restaurant – $US1
  • Hotel doorman – $US2 for hailing a cab
  • Hotel concierge – $US1-$5 for advice and bookings
  • Hotel housekeeping – $US2-$5 per day left on the bed or nightstand
  • Taxi driver – 15-20 per cent of fare
  • Bartender – $US1 per drink
  • Restaurant waitstaff – 15-20 per cent of the total bill (just check service isn't already included)
  • Tour guide – 15-20 per cent for a small-group tour; $US5 per person for a larger bus tour

MONEY-SAVING TIPS FOR FIVE MORE MAJOR CITIES

LONDON

Buy an Oyster Card. Valid on London's extensive public transport system, this rechargeable transport card is more than 50 per cent cheaper than buying single tickets. See www.oyster.tfl.gov.uk

PARIS

Gain free entry and skip the queues at more than 50 museums and monuments with the Paris Museum Pass, available for two days (€48), four days (€62) and six days (€74). See en.parismuseumpass.com

TOKYO

For a cheap, tasty meal, head to the basement of one of Tokyo's department stores where you'll find a huge range of affordable pre-prepared salads, sweets and bento boxes. Most major train stations have at least one connected or nearby.

ROME

Stay on your feet. Table service at a bar or cafe in Rome can cost you twice the price. Do like the locals do and knock back your cappuccino and pastry while standing at the counter inside.

SINGAPORE

Unlike some other countries in south-east Asia, the tap water in Singapore is safe to drink. Which is just as well given the city's knee-weakening humidity. Refill your water bottle and you'll save a small fortune.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-york

www.nycgo.com

www.visittheusa.com

FLY

Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco with onward connections to New York. See www.airnewzealand.com.au

Rob McFarland has been making annual pilgrimages to New York for the last five years, often basing himself there for several months during fall (sorry, autumn). He loves the fact you can return year after year and there are always new bars, restaurants and attractions to explore. And that the city's perennial pleasures, such as a stroll through Central Park, never grow old. The only downside? Being called Raarb. But it's a small price to pay.

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